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Smartphone infidelity = content opportunity?

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Symbian, Microsoft, PalmSource, Linux - there are plenty of choices of operating systems for building smartphones if that what handset manufacturers are looking for The thing is, with so many choices, why just stick with one, writes Rob Bamforth of Bloor Research.

Recent moves by Motorola suggest a Microsoft-based phone, a Linux phone, and it has just announced the A920 3G phone based on Symbian. In the meantime sales of all Symbian devices seem to be soaring. PalmOS-based Handspring looks certain to be joined by several other PalmOS-based smartphones within the year, and Microsoft rumble forward despite Samsung setbacks. Anyone for Linux? Korean based MIZI Research has announced a full featured 3G smartphone platform, MIZI Linux 2.0, so there will be more devices to appeal to the open sourcerers.

When smartphone manufacturers hop from operating system bed to bed, and operators try to entice both groups to embed operator specific features what does that do for the diversity of devices? Simple, it makes it grow like crazy.

So, you're a content provider, or an operator trying to encourage content, what do you do? You could accept a lowest common denominator - not pretty. You could rewrite your content for 'major' platforms - too restrictive or just too expensive. Or you could find someone who can re-purpose your content on the fly. This is tricky too, and although there were once many companies offering this type of capability, some have fallen by the wayside.

One survivor is UK company Volantis.

Recent successes with 3G operator 3, and travel and leisure provider lastminute.com show that Volantis is thriving as well as surviving. There are growing challenges of device variation in the mobile space caused by the growth in variants of smartphones and personal digital assistants. However, a key reason why Volantis has thrived when others have failed is their ability to look beyond mobile.

Many companies viewed the challenge as simply rendering for different sized screen, limited colour choices, or strange keypad layouts. Volantis take a different approach. It provides the content owner with the ability to make up-front decisions on user experience issues such as branding, usability and style, as well as content policies for amongst other things, external link handling, subscriptions and content blacklisting.

This means the same content can be used effectively, not just re-rendered, with a variety of styles and compositions. For example, differently for each mobile portal, or each TV channel. Perhaps also used on a variety of devices, from different phones and PDAs through to interactive televisions and desktop computers. Each time taking appropriate notice of the branding and style rules, while taking advantage of features in the particular device. Volantis manages to squeeze efficiency into this process, with techniques that would be recognisable in the arcane world of programming language compiler software.

This is great news for the content providers, but also good news for operators and content aggregators who'd like to enforce house style without creating either onerous barriers to entry or poor user experiences.

Despite all the anxiety and industry noise surrounding the choice of operating systems for smartphones, the final arbiter is user experience. It's this that encourages the growth of services that are affordable and valuable to the subscriber. The mobile industry should recognise that larger, non-mobile devices will still play a large part in user experience. Content has even less loyalty than handset manufacturers. That's probably good news for companies like Volantis.

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